Are leaders born? Or can they be made? That question has been debated for many years in many different arenas, ranging from business to politics to sports. There are those who insist that anyone, regardless of self-image or aptitude, can develop the tools necessary to become a leader as long as he or she possesses the will to do so. (Typically, however, those people who say that anyone can become a leader have something to sell—perhaps a self-help book or a series of audiocassettes.)
Common sense would seem to suggest that the answer to this question can be found somewhere between the two extremes. That is, good leaders typically emerge from some combination of aptitude, "natural born ability " and training, the learning and practicing of principles and skills that are associated with successful leadership.
Nowhere is the challenge of leadership more important than in the church. After all, laypersons want (even expect) their pastors to be a lot of things: preacher, teacher, administrator, counselor, youth worker, Bible-study leader, fundraiser, and on and on. But chances are good that if you were to ask people to summarize all their expectations of their pastor in a single word, that word would be leader.
Wanted: Church leaders
For years seminaries have struggled with issues of leadership development. After all, the mission of seminaries and graduate theological schools goes far beyond producing students who succeed in the classroom, who know Hebrew and Greek, who know hermeneutical and homiletic principles, who are conversant in topics related to Christology, eschatology, pneumatology, and all the other "ologies."
No, it's never just about producing good students. For the sake of the church and its mission, seminaries are at their best when they are turning out effective leaders for the ministries of the church, including pastoral ministry. Virtually every seminary professor can point to any number of average or below-average students who went on to become very effective as pastors. Of course, there is also the occasional straight-A student who is winner of all the scholarship awards but who, after a few years of unsuccessful and frustrating church ministry, ends up as some congregation's most scholarly and intelligent parishioner. (For the record, it could be argued that churches need theologically sophisticated parishioners as much as they need effective pastors!)
Are admission standards lax?
Many seminaries have done a lot of self-reflection and analysis in recent years, questioning whether they are accomplishing the goal of turning out effective church leaders. To the extent they have fallen short, the discussion has turned to that age-old question with which we started: Are leaders born or can they be they made?
Some observers maintain that the challenge lies not with the seminary programs themselves but rather with the kinds of students seminaries are accepting. Some of these people have suggested that seminary admissions policies in general need to be stricter. A recent survey conducted by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education has revealed that the median acceptance rate for Protestant seminaries is 87 percent. In addition, some 90 percent of Protestant seminary students who responded to the survey said they were attending their first choice of schools. By contrast only 46 percent of law students are attending their "first choice" institution.
There are, of course, ways to explain these numbers in a more positive light. One might argue, for example, that all law schools are pretty much the same, whereas seminaries differ from one another based on program offerings and doctrinal inclination. Thus, those applying for seminary education may very well be more selective with regard to the one school they want to attend.
A call to ministry as qualification
For seminaries the most important consideration is not whom they accept, but whether the people they are graduating are qualified to serve as pastors. In general, seminaries hesitate to turn away those who believe they have had a call to ministry, especially since many consider the call itself to be a prerequisite to pastoral ministry.
Marilyn Gamm, director of admissions at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, maintains that a candidate for pastoral ministry should have "a strong sense of call that has been confirmed by family, friends, fellow church members, and regional judicatory."
But Ken Swetland, academic dean and professor of ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says, "It used to be that people preparing for ministry had a strong inner sense of call from God and were endorsed by a local church for pastoral ministry. Now students come to seminary seeking clarification of call." He adds, "Seminaries have a large task in helping students understand call, a genuine call from God to serve as a pastor. Without this call, there can be enormous problems in ministry, especially when the going gets tough, as it usually does somewhere along the road."
C.W. Brister, Hultgren Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Care at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggests that some people may end up at seminary (or even in ministry) for the wrong reasons. Says Brister, "Church occupations can provide a 'safe place' in which confused ministry candidates may temporarily hide." Brister stresses the importance of a "clear, divine call into Christian vocation with its many demands, options, hazards, and possibilities of expression."
Clarifying a call can be difficult in cases where ministerial candidates must address fallout from family dysfunction: Is theirs a legitimate calling from God, or are they seeking a "safe place"? Says Brister, "If family dysfunction or abuse was experienced in the early years, a ministry candidate should seek remediation [counseling] and healing for developmental deficits." He adds, "Healthy ministers pursue worthy priorities and set clear boundaries in relationships."
Characteristics of a pastoral minister
Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for ordaining ministers (i.e., determining that they are indeed qualified) lies not with seminaries, but with the church, whether individual congregations or larger church bodies. But it is vital for seminary professors and administrators, especially those whose institutions serve a particular denomination, to be intimately aware of the kinds of qualities churches are looking for in a pastor.
And as for the question of whether pastoral leaders are born or made, seminaries have addressed it in many ways, including screening of ministerial candidates, helping them to clarify their call, and providing them with the confidence that comes from learning the skills and principles they will need to develop whatever natural leadership abilities they may have.
Whether a school subscribes primarily to the "born" or "made" theory of leadership is ultimately not the most important issue. The key issue, rather, is whether or not seminaries have a clear vision of the characteristics pastoral ministers should possess. Though they articulate it in different ways, each of the institutions represented in this article has a very clear understanding of these characteristics. And each does its best to make sure that the men and women it sends into the world possess these characteristics, whether acquired through "nature," "nurture," or both.
"Love the people"
Tarris D. Rosell, assistant professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, recalls being fresh out of seminary in 1983 and on his way to his first pastorate. After a worship service at the church in which he grew up, he stopped the pastor in the parking lot, seeking advice on being a pastor. (At the time, Pastor Brown had been at it for 30 years.) Rosell recalls that Pastor Brown laughed with humble embarrassment, before responding, "Just love the people, I guess."
To this day, says Rosell, "Care is the core" remains the pedagogical motto in his classroom. He stresses, "The most important qualification of a pastor is the ability to care."
Relationship with Christ
R. Scott Rodin, president of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, puts at the top of his list "a personal, deep, and growing faith." He explains, "Congregational transformation and renewal happen when pastors themselves are being transformed and renewed by the ongoing work of the Spirit in their lives."
In a similar vein, David K. Clark, dean at the Center for Biblical and Theological Foundations and professor of theology at Bethel Seminary, maintains that "the most important characteristic of pastors, bar none, is devotion to God: passion for God, authenticity before God, obedience to God, relationship with God."
Chuck Conniry, director of the doctor of ministry program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary/George Fox University, recalls a poignant comment made by Pastor Jerry Sheveland when Sheveland was senior pastor at College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego. He was speaking to a group of young pastors about troubles he had faced in ministry over the years. Conniry recalls Sheveland's conclusion: "The only reason I keep doing what I'm doing is because I love Jesus."
Conniry adds, "A vital relationship with Jesus Christ keeps us on track when we're tempted to quit; honest when tempted to sin; centered when tempted to succumb to the latest leadership-how-to fad, and restrained when tempted to strangle the wet-blanket board member who sees it as his or her job to 'keep the pastor in line.'"
Joel B. Green, dean of the School of Theology and professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, says, "Persons involved in pastoral ministry need a deep, transforming commitment to Christ; a strong understanding of and commitment to the vocation of pastoral ministry; and an identity radically shaped by Scripture and the faith of the church. These three characteristics are profoundly related to theological education, since each is grounded in issues of formation and discipleship that come into focus in theological education."
Standards of conduct
Several of those interviewed cast their responses at least partly in terms of standards of behavior befitting pastoral ministry. Says Daniel L. Akin, academic vice president and dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville),
"I believe the most important characteristic or qualification of a minister is personal integrity. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a leader in the church must be blameless or above reproach. Personal integrity is foundational to everything else that one does in ministry."
Donald L. Brake, vice president and dean at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, includes among the characteristics of pastoral ministers "spiritual maturity, servant leadership, hard-working, exemplary life, and people skills." He adds that the minister's life should be "above reproach" with respect to such areas as "sexual fidelity, personal respectability, financial integrity, open hospitality, emotional stability, family quality, relational humility, and personal integrity."
And, says R. Fowler White, dean of faculty and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, "Ministers must hold a love for Christ's bride, the church. They should also maintain a commitment to excellence in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In other words, they should be resolved to stand against the moral complacency and spiritual smugness in one's own life."
In addition to characteristics having to do with a pastor's spiritual maturity and personal discipline, some contributors listed qualities associated with intellectual and practical ministry competency. Gary T. Meadors, dean and professor of Greek and New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, says, "The pastor should be competent in Christian world-view and biblical
literature, and should possess a historical awareness that provides deep understanding of the current culture in light of the history of the world and church."
Searching for the total package
While the characteristics of pastoral ministers can be broken down into various categories, ultimately the pastor who excels in just a single category will struggle to be successful in ministry. Imagine a pastor who knows the Bible and theology inside and out, but whose sermons fail to motivate or inspire. Or imagine the pastor who is more than capable of delivering scintillating and inspiring sermons but who can't get along with parishioners due to his arrogance.
This is not to say that a pastor must be strong in all areas, for certainly each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. To succeed, however, the pastor must be at least competent in all areas, even as he or she excels in one or more. The responses of several of those interviewed reflect the importance of bringing a more or less "complete package" to pastoral ministry.
Craig Williford, president of Denver Seminary, says, "At Denver Seminary, we have agreed upon ten core qualities that are all equally necessary, and we have attempted to design our entire educational process to develop these qualities in our students." Those ten core qualities are stated as: Biblical World View, Healthy Relationships (with self, family church, community, and world), Sensitivity to Human Diversity, Christlike Maturity, Organizational Expertise, Critical Thinking, Passion for Ministry, Effective Communication, Leadership Skills, and Disciple-Making.
Al Mawhinney, academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, adds, "One valuable way to assess the characteristics of an effective pastor is to consider the three major roles the pastoral role comprises: Teacher, Leader, and Shepherd. The pastor must know God's Word and must teach God's Word. The pastor must teach the congregation as a whole and must train lay leaders. The pastor must give personal expression to the congregational vision and provide guidance over the long haul in pursuing that vision. Finally, the pastor is the shepherd of souls. Hearts and lives must be gently and firmly cared for in the spirit of the Great Shepherd."
Bert Downs, president of Western Seminary, cites Christlike character, the ability to think theologically, a "shepherd-hearted" approach to life and people, cultural awareness, and the ability to communicate effectively as being among the key characteristics of the effective pastoral minister.
With these kinds of ideals in mind, it is clear that the goal of seminary education goes far beyond providing students with "head knowledge." With an emphasis on spiritual formation and the development of practical ministry skills, seminaries are very consciously developing people who will lead the church in the decades to come.
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.